Monday, December 27, 2010

The Blessing of Mixed Blessings,
Cloudy Days and Cloudy Millenia
Mr. Polkinghorne: And, of course, there are all sorts of different forms of prayer. I mean, there's sort of worshipful prayer. And I think a lot of scientists actually pray in that way without knowing that they're doing it, because one of the rewards for what is actually a laborious business doing scientific research is a sense of wonder when you see the beautiful structure of the world or the way things work [no idea they've prayed, let alone have it 'answered']. And I think, though scientists don't use the word wonder when they write formal papers for learned journals, they use it quite a lot in their conversation. And it is, as I say, the payoff for all the labor. And I think that actually is a form of worship, whether the scientists know it or not. But I suppose the crunch question is can a scientist ask God to do something? A petitionary prayer in that sense.
Ms. Tippett: Knowing what you know about the laws of nature and, in fact, as you're saying, respecting that it works and how it works.
Mr. Polkinghorne: Well, that's right. Well, if the world were clockwork, then I suppose you'd have to hope [could only hope] that God had designed the clockwork and wound it up in such a way that things wouldn't turn out too badly. But 20th-century science has seen the death of a merely mechanical and merely clockwork view of the world. It came first of all through quantum theory. At the subatomic level, quantum events are not precise and determinate. They have a certain randomness to them. They have a certain cloudiness to them, so that that process isn't clockwork. And we've learned, of course, from chaos theory, the "butterfly effect" — very small disturbances producing enormously big consequences — that even the everyday world described by the sort of physics that would have been familiar to Newton isn't as clockwork as people thought it was.
So the world is certainly not merely mechanical. And I think, actually, we always knew that because we have always known that we are not mechanisms. We are not automata. We have the power to choose, to act in the world. It's a limited power. We can't fly, but we have the power of agency. And if we can act in the world, then I think there's no reason to think that God can't act in the world as well [He, however, is limited in His power, His own role in this world, by having convenanted with it's laws in willfully creating it]. So I think that 20th-century science has loosened up our view of the physical world. It's no longer a piece of gigantic cosmic clockwork. It's a world in which we can conceive ourselves as the inhabitants and acting in it and helping to bring about the future. And I believe also in God. So my answer will be that scientists can pray. Not, of course, as magic, but as cooperating with God, if you like, to bring about the best for the future [why this 'magic' caveat I am not sure; the very description he gives of prayer here is just what many 'magick' people would account as a very sound and thorough definition of magick!; power 'with' - not power 'against'; Magick, to be "efficacious" does not contradict the deeper laws of nature on which it functions - though it may appear on the given perceived 'surface' to be paranormal or supernatural].
Ms. Tippett: So — I told you this before we began to speak—I think it was about 15 years ago I first heard your voice on the BBC late one Saturday night. I was not a scientist asking that question, but I was a person who had been completely political asking that question. And you, in five minutes, gave me a way to think about that, make it such an interesting question, because you were talking about, again, your idea of how you understand how the world works and that, for you, all that we've learned in science — and I want you to correct me if I'm not saying this right — suggests to you — again, this is to repeat what you just said — that there are things that function in their essence and move forward all the time, like we breathe or like the grass grows. But there are also these places of randomness and little openings in reality, and you also imagined that that is relevant to the idea of prayer.
Mr. Polkinghorne: Yes. I think that the picture we now have of the physical world [the "best science of our day" as the "rationalists" like to say about Chazzal and science...]— I mean, the old 18th-century picture was a clockwork world. And there are, certainly, clocks in the world. The sun is going to rise tomorrow. We can tell you the exact minute at which it's going to rise. But we've also learned that there are lots of clouds in the world [and of course our senses can be clouded by our wills, our minds, even when we pray - by not praying with union of our wills with God's in mind and heart]. That's to say a process whose outcome is not clear and certain and is not clear beforehand what's exactly going to happen, [and what exactly happened matters - as the smallest details make for means themselves; butterfly effect, etc] so it's a sort of mixture of the two. And that means that that has a consequence for prayer. There are some things that it isn't sensible to pray for. An early Christian thinker called Origen, who lived in Alexandria, which is jolly hot in the summer, said you shouldn't pray for the cool of spring in the heat of summer. The seasons are going to be there. And of course, theologically, we think that the regularity of the seasons reflects, if you like, the faithfulness of the Creator. But there are other aspects of the world which are cloudy, and I think those are the areas where there is, so to speak, room for maneuver. And I think it's through exploiting that room for maneuver that we act in the world and that God also acts in the world. So there are other things that we can pray for. I mean, the weather, for example, is certainly not just clockwork. And so, though it might cause a bit of a shiver to run down some people's spines, I think we can pray for rain if we're afflicted by a drought.
Ms. Tippett: Well, give me another example, though. I mean, rain is one, but I mean, what would be another example of thinking about openings for human action? Even an example from your life.
Mr. Polkinghorne: Well, I think most of life, actually, is cloudy, and in these cloudy areas, things can, so to speak, go either way. I think recovery from illness. I mean, of course, there are clearly illnesses that are mortal illnesses. There is a clockwork side to illness, if you like. But we also know that illness is very much affected, prior to recovery, very much affected by people's personality and so on [increasing evidence on the role of mind, of 'placebo' and how 'attentive' and mindful of their own healing people are and it's role in health]. And I think that there we can pray that somebody may be strengthened or encouraged or given hope, and that may very well lead to a form of healing that might not have been possible without that. So there is this quite extensive area where we can't exactly — the point is, if God acts through these cloudy processes and we act through these cloudy processes, we can't take them apart and say, "OK, I can see that God did that bit," because we just can't itemize them. And so we can't perceive it directly, but, by faith, we may have the intuition that God is indeed working in that sort of way. I mean, there is going to be an ambiguity in interpreting these things.
Ms. Tippett: So this is kind of about ambiguity and variables that we may not be able to perceive at any given moment.
Mr. Polkinghorne: That's right. But life is like that. And we can't have it sort of cut and dry. And that enables us to be what we are. There's a very interesting scientific insight which says that regions where real novelty occurs, where really new things happen that you haven't seen before, are always regions which are at the edge of chaos. They are regions where cloudiness and clearness, order and disorder, interlace each other. If you're too much on the orderly side of that borderline, everything is so rigid that nothing really new happens. You just get rearrangements. If you're too far on the haphazard side, nothing persists, everything just falls apart. It's these ambiguous areas, where order and disorder interlace, where really new things happen, where the action is, if you like. And I think that reflects itself both in the development of life and in many, many human decisions.

And such regions are the meat of the hairsbreadth that lies between kosher and treif, between one 'country' and another, between life and death. Life is very often unknowingly walking such a border, a fence-walk - but a religious life, though there be low-laying clouds, are navigated by faith (emunah, informed trust really); we live mamash - willfully and specifically reminding ourselves that however much we may be certain...we do not 'know'- when we 're actually living, we live without certainty, walking the narrow bridge we can 'create' - between who we think we are, what we think we do, what is the way of the world and what is Ratzon Hashem - walking on the fence, with trust from experience of having gotten this far (for what that's worth; I totally concede that many lives suck, and for all the "looking at the bright side", they ultimately are lacking an experience of God as trustworthy and I can't blame them for not trusting - having lived my own life of trust Betrayed and shattered, regained only to be Destroyed again).

As mortals who only create mortally, we cannot allow our selves the comfort of certainties, otherwise we've resigned to 'knowing' what we do not actually know, not knowing what we actually do know, living and thinking willfully, pointlessly and destructively, or not exercising will - resigning where and when we know we can act to change ourselves and the world for the better. Trust, hope, pray and walk.


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